Liew's "Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" Tells Singapore's Secret History

Sonny Liew has been making an impact in comics for more than a decade, but his new book is his most ambitious work to date. "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" was mistakenly thought by some early readers and reviewers to be a biography of a real artist. It's not, however. It's a work of fiction, created by Liew, detailing the life of an artist, featuring "excerpts" of work from throughout Chye's career in a variety of styles and approaches.

While visually stunning, the book is more than a fictional recollection of an artist's life story. Rather, it tells the story of Singapore, and it's this focus that has caused the book to be mired in controversy. Originally, the Singapore National Arts Council supported the book's publication with a grant. The grant was then withdrawn due to claims that the book "undermines the authority or legitimacy" of the government.

RELATED: Sonny Liew's Graphic Novel Sells Out After Government Pulls Grant

Despite this, "The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye" has been a success in Singapore, and now Pantheon is releasing this ambitious graphic novel in the United States on March 1. Liew spoke with CBR News about the book, thinking about history, what he's enjoying about "Dr. Fate" and thinking about his next project.

CBR News: Where did this book begin for you? Was it the concept? The character?

Sonny Liew: Growing up in Singapore, I was always vaguely aware there were parts of history being left out of the mainstream historical narrative, sometimes called the Singapore Story. Perhaps this was an inevitable result of having one-party rule since independence in 1965 -- though it seems that there are mainstream and counter narratives everywhere.

A couple of years back, I was reading books like Roger Sabin's "Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels" when it became clear that any account of comics history always required some background historical information -- Crumb's comics and the counter cultural movement of the 1960s, for example, or the rise and fall of different genres in the U.S. before, during and after the Second World War. So I thought it might be possible to turn the idea on its head, somewhat -- to do a book that examined history, but under the guise of a book about comics. The exact form of the book needed to be in would go through several iterations, with decisions based mostly on the need to keep the narrative flowing and engaging.

How much did you grow up knowing and understanding the "unofficial history" of Singapore?

It was patchy at best -- but then, so was my knowledge of mainstream history. I don't think we have the same kind of focus on the country's history the way American schools do, so you really only get bits and pieces. What does come through in the mainstream narrative is the idea that under the PAP's leadership, Singapore went from being a "sleepy fishing village" to a modern metropolis, while facing all kinds of enduring dangers. The desired outcome would be a general belief that the electorate needs to trust in that leadership to prevent everything collapsing like a house of cards. And the counter narrative tries to question the mainstream one at various levels. Was Singapore really a sleepy fishing village back in 1965? Are all part of the PAP platform needed to sustain the nation? Are the vulnerabilities exaggerated and the advantages underplayed?

For people in Singapore, how much of the history we're reading in the book is widely known, whether the Hock Lee Bus Riots or Lim Chin Siong? How much you could assume that readers would know the history?

I tried my best to make the book accessible to everyone, and from the feedback I've gotten from readers who knew little about Singapore's history, I'm hopeful this hasn't been a total failure. As for the events depicted in the book, it's a bit of a mish-mash, ranging from widely known incidents like the Hock Lee Bus Riots, to the more obscure. Lim Chin Siong, for example, is widely remembered by older generations; younger ones are likely to have no clue who he is, with Lee Kuan Yew largely dominating the landscape. What binds them would be the lens through which they're usually depicted, with the victors presenting their version of history. What I've tried to do is offer a more inclusive look at things, or perhaps more fundamentally, to suggest the need to for a critical and skeptical approach to whatever narratives we encounter, because at the end of the day, everyone has their own agenda to sell.

How do you research a book like this? Besides just the history, is it easy to find reference material and be able to get the details right of what Singapore used to be like?

A lot of research and interviews. I'm not a historian on any real level, so I didn't do a lot of primary research, but I did try to read as many books as I could, from traditional accounts to more revisionist ones. I talked to historians and lawyers. What primary research there was involved trying to understand the comics scenes back in the day -- how cartoonists would have lived and worked, what publishing was like. But I also operated under the assumption that there would be similarities in the experiences of artists everywhere, so I also drew on the experiences of everyone from Wally Wood to Tezuka in figuring out possible conditions and trajectories. It's one of those things where you have to learn things in order to be able to write about them. I think I came away with a better understanding of the sequence and nature of the events that were a bit of a jumble before.

Why did you decide to tell the story in this way, through comics and artwork this fictional artist created over the decades?

I guess it felt like it would interesting, a different formal approach with which to tell the story, push the language of the medium in my own small way.

Why make this book and not make, say, "Days of August," which is one of the books you excerpt and gets at many of these themes and ideas?

There's something fun about depicting parts that suggest wider wholes. It's a bit like Borgesian short stories that invoke the idea of vast infinite libraries. Maybe that goes back to reading actual "Art of..." books, where the excerpts would make you imagine and wonder about the rest of the story. There's a long history of that, isn't there, of this kind of fakery and mischief?

You've utilized different approaches and styles before, like in the short comic "The Hunt for Mas Selamat." What about this approach do you find interesting?

I've always been interested in formal experimentation, and stylistics shifts are part of the language of comics we can use. It can be incredibly fun, like when Bill Watterson shifts into Film Noir mode in the "Calvin and Hobbes" strips. Beyond that, the shifts can be a visual representation of the subjective nature of narratives, the slippery nature of what we call Reality. I suppose it also allows you to draw on the different resonances of different genres and artists, to celebrate the amazing diversity of the medium.

Was there a particular style you found especially challenging?

At the thumbnail stage, I wondered if I'd be able to pull any of it off. Every time I arrived at a new section, I'd be sweating, not quite knowing how things would turn out.

How much effort did you put into finding the right tone for the book? Because it's a book about the love of art and making art, but it's also a very bittersweet book, about both his life and his country.

Quite a lot? It involved studying narratives that had the kind of tone and feeling that I wanted to convey, and figuring out how it was done, the structural and storytelling gambits required. Books by Jiro Taniguchi and Allen Say, for example, or biographies of artists -- Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman, Hiroshi Fujimoto, so on.

Last year, the Singapore National Arts Council withdrew a grant to help publish the book, saying it "undermines the authority or legitimacy" of the government. Of course, the book does question the official stories.

In Singapore, at least, the controversy over the grant withdrawal helped raise awareness of the book to a level the publisher never anticipated. The book quickly sold out its first few print runs and became one of the reference points for debates about censorship here. That said, it also meant that places like school libraries are less likely to stock it.

Much of the work you've made has been from American publishers, like DC Comics, First Second, Image, SLG. What is the comics industry like in Singapore?

It's still very nascent, with very little of the infrastructure you find in places like the US, UK, Japan or France. Publishers will point to the relatively small population and talk about the lack of critical mass, which translates into low volume sales, low advances, page rates and more. My own approach to the many obstacles faced is to try to produce what I hope are good comics and hope that good things follow. Build it and They Will Come! It's all very "Field of Dreams."

Maybe I'll get to meet James Earl Jones one day!

You, of course, edited the "Liquid City" anthologies, which collect works from creators across Southeast Asia. Have you seen more artists and more cartoonists creating work, and an audience that's interested in comics?

The appetite for comics here is pretty big -- but it's mostly focused on foreign material, usually from the U.S. or Japan. That also means there are a lot of young creators inspired by what they read to make comics, and the challenge is whether it'll feel like a viable career, something they can aspire to in the long term. The answer is of course, yes, though it usually involves breaking into other markets, since the one in Singapore is so undeveloped. It can still feel like you're reinventing the wheel each time, rather than having a clear path to follow. But I've been glad to see a lot of the creators involved in "Liquid City" are still trying and succeeding to find their way in the business.

A lot of American readers know that you've been working on a very different project, with Paul Levitz on "Dr. Fate." What has that been like? It is a very different kind of project.

It's been an interesting experience working on a monthly series -- especially having started the book later than hoped (with all the finishing touches required for "Charlie Chan Hock Chye"), so the delivery schedules have been very tight, and I've had to learn all sorts of new tricks to keep up. Paul's support and encouragement have made things a lot easier, as has been the effort put in by Andy Khouri and Lee Loughridge.

How long will you be on "Dr. Fate?"

I'm signed up 'til issue 12, after which I hope to be able to start on a new graphic novel of my own.

Are you interested in primarily writing and drawing your own work going forward, or perhaps in creating more historical works?

Well, not necessarily historical. I've watched some interviews with the writer Kazuo Ishiguro where he talks about how there is a need to find the right vehicle -- in terms of genre, setting, style etc. -- in order to tell a particular story. So there are ideas and then there are ways of conveying them, and for me that's the really interesting challenge, trying to figure out how to fit everything together, all these disparate parts, into a cohesive and engaging narrative. I suppose it can be a little self-indulgent, but I also think its more fruitful to look for the right form to tell a story rather than to try to shoehorn a story into a particular form. Superhero comics, for example, offer a lot of interesting tropes, but getting to pick and choose them as needed rather than be constrained by overarching plotlines across several different titles -- that seems to allow for better stories in themselves.

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